Robin Ellis as the dashing Captain Ross Poldark
Back in the mid-Seventies, U.S. audiences of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre eagerly awaited the premiere of the BBC’s newest costume drama, Poldark. Based on the first four Poldark novels by the late Winston Graham, the series starred Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, an 18th century British army officer who returns home to Cornwall from the American Revolutionary War to find his personal life in shambles and his family business on the point of ruin. The rugged yet beautiful Cornish scenery coupled with well-written scripts, colorful characters (including one or two who you just loved to hate) and flawless performances made Poldark an instant hit on this side of the pond as well as around the world.
Having previously released seasons one and two of the Emmy and BAFTA-nominated series as separate 4-volume boxed DVD sets, Acorn Media (www.AcornOnline.com) recently released a value-priced 8-disc DVD collection of both seasons. This foil-packaged collector’s edition includes all 29 episodes of the BBC series in addition to the bonus features “Getting the Part” by Poldark star Robin Ellis, excerpted from his book, Making Poldark, along with cast filmographies and historical background on Cornwall.
Prior to Poldark, Ellis had been busy honing his craft onstage with roles including Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, Edmund in King Lear and Dr. Pinch in The Comedy of Errors, as well as with appearances on such popular British TV series as Elizabeth R, The Moonstone, Sense and Sensibility and Blue Remembered Hills. Fans will also recall the actor’s guest-starring role as undercover police officer Danny Brown in the Fawlty Towers episode “A Touch of Class.”
“At one point I had to speak fluent Spanish to the now very famous Spanish waiter, Manuel [played by Andrew Sachs],” recalls Ellis. “When we did it in front of the audience that Sunday night, I got it all right. Immediately afterwards, however, the stage manager came up to me and said, ‘I’m very sorry, Robin, but there’s something wrong with the camera and we have to do it all over again.’ My palms were already bleeding from tension, and I had to do it all over again,” he says with a chuckle.
“It was wonderful to have been in the first episode of Fawlty Towers, one of the very great pieces of television comedy I think in the world.”
When it comes to Poldark, Ellis originally interviewed twice for the role of Ross, and on his third meeting he read for the show’s producer and director. That was on a Friday, and the following Monday the actor was told that the part was his. “It was agony waiting to hear,” he notes, “because by then I really wanted to do it.”
Wounded and having escaped from a French prison camp, Ross is relieved to once again see his familiar Cornish surroundings, but any joy is short-lived. He not only learns of his father death, but finds his home and property run down. With everyone having assumed him dead, the former solider also discovers that the woman he loved, Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), is engaged to his cousin Francis (Clive Francis). Meanwhile, a wealthy local family, the Warleggens, is pushing to buy the Poldark family copper mines. Thanks to a young woman named Demelza (Angharad Rees), our hero is eventually able to feel love once again, but his personal as well as professional struggles are far from over.
“Ross fits very much into a tradition of that sort of writing,” explains Ellis. “Certainly in the first series it’s a rags-to-riches story in a sense. A man comes back from America, having fought in the war, and finds his home in ruins. There’s a mine there with possibilities, but it’s up to him. He’s also disturbed by what he sees around him.
“Then, of course, on a romantic level Ross thought he was coming back to marry, so he’s in the process of picking himself up, dusting himself off and starting all over again as the song goes. Anything that starts at the bottom and has nowhere to go but up is interesting to do.”
Throughout Poldark’s two seasons, the actor rolled with the times - at least onscreen - and did plenty of horseback riding. Ellis also had to work a physical “kink” into his performance, which was not always easy.
“I had a horse in the first series called Dennis, and he was a real character,” says the actor. “He considered himself, at 12 years old and the next steeplechaser, a better actor than me. I swear he smiled every time he went in front of the camera. He threw me a couple of times, but the two of us ended up getting on famously.
“We filmed the majority of the show in a studio in London, but the exterior shots were done in Cornwall,” he continues. “During one scene we did in the studio, I was making my exit in a fit of rage. I limped to the exit door, opened it, and walked through it. I later saw myself in that particular episode and watched as I walked very angrily, and with a big limp, to the door and exited onto the Cornish landscape. Unfortunately, I strode away from the door without any limp at all because I’d forgotten on the exterior shoot to do the limp.
“Another time I had to dance with someone in one of the early episodes when I was supposed to have a limp. I just couldn’t work out a way of how to dance with a limp. The brain wouldn’t program limp into dance. Then somebody suggested putting a matchbox into my boot and that solved the problem,” laughs Ellis. “I limped because it was extremely uncomfortable.”
There is no denying that Ross was hurt when he lost Elizabeth to his cousin, but he was fortunate enough to subsequently find his soul mate in Demelza. Ellis expresses great fondness for his Poldark co-star, the beautiful and talented Angharad Rees, who experienced a true metamorphosis with her character of Demelza.
“Angharad is a glorious person and we were very lucky to hit it off, really,” he says.
Although Poldark only lasted two seasons, it continues to be loved and enjoyed (on DVDs) by fans even 35 years later. In fact, the show gave birth to The Poldark Appreciation Society, a group of men and women who come together to celebrate the show and its characters. At one time that society held weekend events in Cornwall as well as Saturday luncheons in London, the latter of which were attended over the years by several familiar Poldark faces including Winston Graham, Robin Ellis and his lovely wife Meredith Wheeler, Angharad Rees, Jane Wymark (Morwenna Whitworth) and actress Virginia Wetherell (widow of Ralph Bates, who played George Warleggen).
“The English responded to a show where people showed their emotions,” says Ellis. “It’s not encouraged in our culture, I don’t think, to express yourself emotionally. Emotion is thought of as something that should be controlled and not exposed. Maybe the English, with this modern attitude of not showing feelings, have a need for something like Poldark, set in the 18th century, when things were slightly different. Back then, people did show their emotions because life was very tough. I think life is not worth living unless you express your emotions, and you only make life more difficult for yourself if you don’t.”
The actor, who currently lives with his wife in Southern France, has kept busy since Poldark ended, having worked on a variety of projects including the TV series The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, Heartbeat and Wallander. You can catch up with all of Ellis’ activities at his official blog/website (robin-ellis.net).
The above quotes from Mr. Ellis are part of an extensive interview I did with him several years ago and that was graciously organized by his wife, Meredith Wheeler. Please note, all Poldark photos are copyright of the BBC.